Monday, October 31, 2005

The Bat Test

This is a student poem from a few years ago – the first draft of a poem that went on to become much, much better – bright and sensual and well-realized.

First Kiss

The surf rushes forward,
falling with fury into a fluid fusion.
Waves whirl and intertwine.
Surges of synergic seduction plunge deeper
as they rise and tumble.
Ripples diminish, and bliss licks the shore.
The ocean’s caress recedes
and I, standing barefoot in the sand
know.


And my response, or the relevant part for this blog entry:

You’ve already let us know that the poem is going to be about a romantic, breathtaking moment, by titling it “First Kiss.” So you don’t need to explain that.

You also don’t need to explain to the reader that surf is a crashing, exciting phenomenon. So ANYTHING you say about the waves will carry that. Which means that’s the one thing you DON’T want to say, because you’re saying it already. Adding anything about rushing, or fury, is going to be redundant, and will feel like overkill.

Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, talks about "writing off the subject." I'd add another, similar suggestion: "Writing away from the subject."

Not only do you not need to say what you've already said, you don't need to say what you've already suggested. It’s close to impossible to write total non sequiturs. If something pops into your head, no matter how disconnected it may seem from what went before, it's connected because your head is the one it popped into.

So the connections are there. They can’t help but be. And that means you need to trust us as readers to make those connections. We will make them...sometimes even better than you, the poet, will, because we expect them to be there. If we know a poem is called "First Kiss," we'll connect anything that follows to the experience of a first kiss (whatever our experience of a first kiss is). So write away from it. Don't describe a first kiss. Describe something else.

Here's a stanza from a poem called “Summer Haiku” by Alicia Ostriker. You can find the whole poem at http://www.poems.com/summeost.htm. The stanza reads


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

Now, instead of “Summer Haiku,” let’s call the poem


FIRST KISS

That night, a bat soared
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

Once we see the title "First Kiss," we're going to relate whatever comes after to the idea of a first kiss. We may read this and think -- this is a kiss she shouldn't have gotten into. This is a dangerous first kiss -- irresistible because of its crazy danger, because of the moonlight...but dangerous.

Let’s put the same stanza under another title from another student poem:


AFTER AN ARGUMENT WITH MY GIRLFRIEND, I QUESTION MY LOVE FOR HER

A bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
her mouth full of insects.

Uh oh. We're in the present tense now -- not looking back at the first kiss from a distance of time, but right there with the guy as his girl friend storms away, and his mind is full of doubts. Why is he looking at the sky, and not at her? Maybe because of the doubts. He wants to shut her out, at least for the moment. But he can't shut her out -- anything he sees is going to be relevant. And he sees a bat flying crazily across the moon -- the symbol of romantic love being crossed by the symbol of vampirism -- the creature who will first appear sexual and enticing, but will then suck the blood and the soul out of you. And in the speaker's mind -- because there's no way he could actually know this -- the bat is a woman.


Now let's stick it under a couple of other titles, drawn from poems.com (and without reading the poems, just grabbing the titles).


A DOG'S GRAVE

A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
mouth full of insects.

He's visiting the dog's grave at night. He must be very lonely. And the solitary bat makes him feel even lonelier. But...it's a mother bat. Her mouth is full of insects for her babies. Even this world, bereft of a beloved dog, is full of life and nurturing in the strangest places...maybe? We have to read on.


FAMILY REUNION

A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
mouth full of insects.



You make the interpretation.



Or how about this? Ezra Pound's famous two-line poem.

IN A STATION OF THE METRO

The apparition of these faces in the crowd,
Bats flying crazily across the moon.


So that's the bat test. What happens to your poem if you stick the bat stanza into it? Does it derail the poem, or is it still strangely on track? If it derails the poem, maybe you're too locked into literal meaning. If it doesn't, then think about where else you can go.



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